LOS ANGELES — For many in California, the name Forest Lawn is virtually synonymous with cemetery, particularly the bucolic kind with classical statuary and European architecture. Today, there are six Forest Lawn Memorial Parks in Southern California, but the first one, the one in Glendale, founded in 1906, is the most iconic, with its winding roads, manicured subdivisions, and buildings that look like an English country chapel here or an Italian Romanesque church there. The art inside and outside these buildings hearken back to Old Masters — a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” sits in the Great Mausoleum, though in stained glass, and a full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s sculpture David stands outdoors in a plaza, although in bronze.
Unveiling the Past: The Art & History of Forest Lawn, an exhibition at the Forest Lawn Museum, traces the history of the architecture and art at the institution, especially at Glendale. Organized by museum director James Fishburne, the exhibition begins around the time Hubert L. Eaton took over as president in 1917 and molded the place into an idealized concept of our final resting place. Art, both by and in the style of acknowledged European masters, was very much part of the program.
There are old photographs and ephemera, concept designs and drawings, and some gorgeous stained-glass panels. The stained glass is actually old — French and German, and dates from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Especially notable are the portraits of St. Andrew and Pope Sixtus II made by the Hirschvogel Workshop of Nuremberg, which are designed after drawings by Albrecht Dürer.
“Our collection of stained glass is one of the largest in the United States,” said Fishburne during a walkthrough of the show. “The three floor-to-ceiling sections are Medieval and Renaissance stained glass that we purchased from the Hearst collection.” He was referring to another art collector, William Randolph Hearst, the publisher who spent so much of his fortune on purchasing the artistic heritage of Europe that he went into debt. (And the lightly disguised subject of Orson Welles’s biopic Citizen Kane in 1941.)
Born in Missouri in 1881, Eaton was “the product of a staunch Christian education and hungry for world culture as a part of the American experience,” writes architectural and landscape historian Marc Treib in his article “The Landscape of Loved Ones.” “Eaton mixed lofty ideals with an understanding of the American psyche and acute business acumen.” He became enamored with European art, partly due to a visit to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco with its stately buildings. His first major building project was the Great Mausoleum, which is a mix of ecclesiastical and castle design. It opened in 1920 but continued to be built into the 1970s.
Several times he traveled to Europe and commissioned works inspired by Renaissance masters, including Leonardo’s “The Last Supper,” which was recreated in stained glass for greater effect. A photograph shows the two sisters, Rosa and Cecilia Moretti Caselli, who worked on the project in their studio in Perugia, Italy. As mentioned, a replica of Michelangelo’s David is also here, and a photo shows the sculpture lying in pieces after an earthquake. Instead of replacing him with another marble sculpture, this time Forest Lawn decided to do it in bronze — and the sculpture was recently re-installed in the Court of David down the hill from the museum, surrounded by a columbarium wall ready for future occupancy.
The exhibition spotlights Jan Styka’s enormous painting “The Crucifixion,” which Eaton tracked to a Chicago warehouse in 1943 (Styka was a Polish painter renowned for his panoramic history paintings). In Glendale, Eaton would construct a building with an auditorium large enough to display its width — 195 feet — and today it’s in the Hall of Crucifixion next to the museum. When the auditorium is open, it’s well worth sitting through a narrated viewing of the painting, which depicts Christ standing on Golgotha Hill, facing the cross he will die upon. Crowds are around him and the city of Jerusalem is to the far right. It’s truly epic, even cinematic in its scope.
Asked to explain the taste for these types of art, Fishburne replied, “There’s a sort of timelessness in these classical works of art. It’s also bringing something to us, bigger than ourselves. When you go to a museum, or when you travel the world, you are expanding your boundaries and thinking of things from the distant past and which will endure into the future.”
Forest Lawn has an unexpectedly impressive collection of art, and this exhibition just touches upon the highlights. Critics have called it kitsch, but I personally don’t mind kitsch, and many of the replicas or derivations at Forest Lawn are too well made to be called kitsch. The art at Forest Lawn transports us into another world — it allows us to imagine, if just for the moments we are there, a world where one can leave the troubled world behind and beauty reigns.
Unveiling the Past: The Art & History of Forest Lawn continues at the Forest Lawn Museum (1712 S Glendale Ave, Glendale, Calif.) through March 13. The exhibition was organized by James Fishburne.